Blessed John XXIII prays after his election in 1958. CNS photo

The Register Archive: John XXIII begins reign on a grand scale

By 
  • October 29, 2018

Sixty years ago — on Oct. 28, 1958 — Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was elected pope, taking the name Pope John XXIII.  His coronation Nov. 4 lasted five hours, filled with all the pomp and ceremony that accompanied the position at that time. Here’s The Register’s account of that historic day:


VATICAN CITY – The triple crown of the papacy came to rest on the brow of His Holiness Pope John XXIII on the Feast of St. Charles Borromeo, marking the official beginning of his reign.

The ritual pageantry of centuries was carried out first inside St. Peter’s Basilica and then, the actual crowning, high on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square toward which a half million people converged to proclaim the new Pope of Rome. Countless other millions for the first time followed the coronation ceremony over television.

All the pomp of the Church and the papacy, the oldest court in the world, preceded Pope John XXIII into the basilica of St. Peter’s. More than 400 persons in the brilliant uniforms of the papal court, the simple robes of religious, and the colourful copes and mitres of prelates walked before the Pope carried aloft on the Sedila Gestatoria (portable throne). Above him rose a portable canopy and behind him were carried the two ceremonial fans of ostrich plumes.

The Pope’s entrance was greeted with the stirring sound of the trumpet choir from their place high over the entrance. Sun filtering through the windows and a blaze of lights throughout the basilica fell on the gold embroided vestments of the Pope.

At this moment the entire bascilica was transformed into an almost violent demonstration of mixed emotion. Pontifical guards snapped to rigid attention. The masses of people packed into the basilica raised their voices in deafening roar of “Viva il Papa” — a salute that the new Pope would hear many more times in his reign. Members of diplomatic missions of more than 50 nations rose to their feet.

Canada was represented by Solicitor General Leon Balcer.

The procession stopped before the main altar and the Pontifical Master of Ceremonies coming before the Supreme Pontiff performed the rite which amidst all his glory would remind him of the sobering reality of the passing of all things.

Taking in a silver basin a burning tuft of smoldering flax, the Master of Ceremonies genuflected and chanted three times: “Holy Father, so passes the glory of the world.”

The Pope now began the celebration of Mass which, for the most part, was similar to any solemn pontifical Mass celebrated by a bishop. The Pope was assisted by Their Eminences Nicola Cardinal Canali, Eugene Cardinal Tisscrant and Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani.

At the end of the Mass the process was formed and moved through the basilica and out the main doors to the atrium, up the Scala Regia and into the Hall of Benedictions. After arriving at the doors to the central balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, the Pope alighted from the portable throne and went to take his seat on the throne of the balcony. 

As he came into view the many thousands waiting in the Square who had been unable to enter the basilica greeted the Pope with loud, prolonged and joyful acclaim. The entire square became a surging mass of shouting, waving, yeeping humanity — men, women and children from every nation on the face of the Earth demonstrating at the same time the universality and the unity of the Church. And in this moment, surely, of one heart and mind and voice to express their reverence and love for the occupant of Peter’s Throne.

The actual coronation that followed was simple. The choir intoned the hymn “Corona Aureau Super Caput Ejus” (A Golden Crown is Placed Upon His Head). When it was finished, Cardinal Tisserant recited the Lord’s Prayer, which would be the only prayer to accompany the act of coronation. Then Cardinal Canali, taking the tiara in both hands, raised it over the head of the enthroned pontiff, saying: “Accept this ornate tiara of the three crowns and remember that you are Father of Princes and Kings, pontiff of the world and Vicar of Our Saviour Jesus Christ on this Earth, whose honour and glory is forever and ever.”

The Pope was crowned. “Viva il Papa” (Long live the Pope) burst from half a million throats in the Earth’s every language. The Vicar of Christ blessed his flock.

Pope John XXIII withdrew from the balcony to begin his reign.

(To explore more from The Catholic Register Archive, go to catholicregister.org/archive)

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